How to Sew an Empire Waist

Written by jenni wiltz
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Share
  • Pin
  • Email
How to Sew an Empire Waist
(Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images)

Popularised during the reign of Napoleon, empire waist styles were a part of the classical revival that swept France after the terrifying years of the French Revolution. The idea was to adopt the flowing, simplistic lines of an ancient Greek chiton or Roman toga, with a banded waistline just beneath the bosom. The long, straight skirt camouflaged a woman’s stomach and let her leave her corset behind. You can create your own empire waist dress from scratch, using a tank top you already have and an easy-to-sew skirt you’ll make yourself.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Measuring tape
  • Cotton tank top
  • Skirt fabric
  • Trim
  • Straight sewing pins
  • Scissors
  • Needle
  • Thread
  • Iron

Show MoreHide


  1. 1

    Measure yourself from just below your chest to the floor. Add 5/8 inche to the top and to the bottom for a hem allowance.

  2. 2

    Choose a tank top you already own. Use a plain 100 per cent cotton tank that’s machine washable.

  3. 3

    Buy fabric to construct your skirt. Keep in mind the colour of your tank top, and pick fabric that appeals to you, whether it’s solid colour, print, floral, stripe or gingham.

  4. 4

    Buy a trim to sew around the waist of your skirt. It should be relatively wide—between 1 and 2 inches.

  5. 5

    Lay your fabric on the floor, folded in half lengthwise. Measure out a rectangle, and mark it with straight sewing pins. The long sides will be the measurement you gathered in step 1; the short sides can be as wide as you wish. If you want a wide skirt, use the full width of your fabric. If you want a narrower skirt, measure the width of your hips while seated and add 6 inches.

  6. 6

    Cut out the rectangle you marked with sewing pins. You should end up with a front and a back.

  7. 7

    Turn the fabric over, so the wrong side is facing out, and pin the side seams together with straight sewing pins. Sew the seams closed; then turn the fabric right-side out. If your seams are lumpy, press them with a hot iron until they lie flat.

  8. 8

    Fold down a 5/8-inch hem on the top and bottom of the skirt. Iron it to lay it flat, and pin it down with sewing pins. Sew hem down.

  1. 1

    Try on the tank top, and mark the spot just below your chest with a sewing pin; this is where you’ll attach the skirt. Take off the top (be careful not to stick yourself with the pin).

  2. 2

    Pin the skirt to the tank top at the side seams. Match the skirt’s side seams with the tank top’s side seams.

  3. 3

    Pleat the skirt fabric between the side seams, pinning it down as you go. Try to make your pleats even—measure them at an inch apiece, for example. The size of your pleats will depend on how wide you cut your skirt. A narrow skirt may only need half-inch pleats; a wide skirt may need inch-wide pleats.

  4. 4

    Sew a horizontal line across the pleats, attaching them to the tank top. Don’t worry about making precise stitches—this line will be covered by the trim.

  5. 5

    Pin down your trim across the waistline of the dress, so it covers the seam you just sewn. Sew down the trim. You can leave the tips of the pleats showing (called a paper-bag waist) if you like, or if your trim is wide enough, you can cover the seam and the tips of the pleats.

Tips and warnings

  • Experiment by adding more layers of trim to the bottom of your skirt. Be creative. Try sequins, rickrack, seam-binding tape or soutache trim. You can also add embellishment to the tank top's neckline.
  • Experiment with different skirt lengths and colours. You can build an entire wardrobe of these loose, comfortable dresses.
  • Do not use a tank top made with Lycra or spandex for this dress. These fabrics expand to fit and can cause problems when you’re fitting your skirt to the top. If the tank top stretches more than skirt fabric allows, for example, you risk popping stitches when you put the dress on.

Don't Miss

  • All types
  • Articles
  • Slideshows
  • Videos
  • Most relevant
  • Most popular
  • Most recent

No articles available

No slideshows available

No videos available

By using the site, you consent to the use of cookies. For more information, please see our Cookie policy.